Superhero films have become a battleground for feminism lately, mostly because big blockbusters are a good litmus test for mainstream culture’s conceptualization of women. But while there have been endless discussions about how female characters are treated in recent films like Avengers: Age Of Ultron (divisively), Batman V Superman (so-so), and Fantastic Four (stay home and make the costumes while the boys have a space adventure), The Mary Sue is re-examining one of the franchises that kicked off this current superhero trend: Spider-Man.
In her reassessment of the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire trilogy, writer Sarah Barrett actually finds a lot of stuff to praise. For instance, Peter Parker’s love interest Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is allowed to be a flawed character in her own right with insecurities that stem from her emotionally abusive father. And Barrett argues that Spider-Man is explicitly interested in challenging Peter’s desire to put Mary Jane on a pedestal. Plus as she puts it, “A woman in a movie trilogy wearing low-cut tops, portraying herself as sexy, dating at least one new man per movie, and she’s not slut-shamed? Well, it’s more than most actual female celebrities ever get.”
Barrett also praises Spider-Man 3’s portrayal of Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) as someone who has every right to turn down the creepy advances of both Eddie Brock and Peter himself. And Barrett points out (spoiler alert for a 9-year-old movie) that when the film wants to give Peter an emotional moment, it kills Harry rather than Gwen or MJ—neatly subverting the “fridging” trope. Barrett even finds some praise for that justifiably detested scene of Peter “going bad” under the influence of the Venom symbiote by pointing out that “evil is very often inextricably tied up with misogyny” in the Spider-Man trilogy. The women Evil Peter tries to flirt with are grossed out by him, not turned on. And even once Peter learns his lesson about not being a dancing misogynist, it’s left ambiguous as to whether MJ can forgive him for his sexist behavior.
Admittedly, Barrett might be reaching a little bit with some of this stuff, especially given how little screentime Gwen has, how inconsistently her character is written, and how often women wind up as damsels in distress in these films. But as Barrett puts it: “For a movie that reiterated again and again that with great power comes great responsibility, it’s good to realize that they also considered how men, with all their privileges, have a responsibility toward women.”